Advocates fight for predator, hoping for its return to Adirondacks
By Mike Lynch
Sitting on a log on a mid-December morning last year in the woods near Cooperstown, Brian, a 22-year-old deer hunter, heard rustling behind him.
“I looked over my shoulder and there’s a huge ‘dog’ looking at me dead in my eyes,” he recalled.
What he thought was a large coyote had its nose to the ground and appeared to be stalking him around 7:30 a.m. Scared, the hunter aimed his muzzleloader and fired at the animal that was 15 yards away.
Brian searched for the carcass, doing three circles through the woods. He didn’t find it.
He concluded the canid must have been drawn to him by doe urine he had sprayed on the forest floor and on his boots to attract bucks. Wolves generally aren’t considered dangerous to humans and instead avoid them.
The next day he returned with his hunting partners and found the dead animal under a downed tree.
Brian thought the first coyote he ever shot was a state record, so he contacted the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Within a few days, a DEC officer visited him and measured and weighed the animal and took a sample for genetic testing, Brian said.
John Glowa, who heads the Maine Wolf Coalition, also came calling. He had discovered a photo of Brian and the animal on a Facebook page for hunters.
Glowa arranged for fellow wolf advocate Joe Butera, president of the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, to obtain DNA for testing. Butera went to taxidermy in Cherry Valley, where Brian had dropped off his specimen to be mounted, and gathered a sample.
Brian would be stunned more than six months later to learn he had taken an 85-pound Great Lakes gray wolf, an endangered species. He told the Explorer his story on the condition his last name wasn’t used for protection against lawsuits.
“I thought it was a coyote,” he said. “I didn’t think there were wolves in New York, so that was the last thing that came on my mind.”
Wolves were eliminated from New York state in the 1800s after they were targeted by hunters and government bounties. Trapper Reuben Cary killed the last native Adirondack wolf, near Brandreth Lake in the western Adirondacks, in November 1893, according to an exhibit at Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake
The public may have never known the canid was a wolf if not for advocates paying for a set of DNA tests. The second and third opinions in this case were important because the state-commissioned test turned up different results than what came back from two other labs.
The DEC’s lab at the Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania reported on April 13 that the animal was an eastern coyote, which are known to contain wolf and coyote genes. The analysis found that an eastern coyote birthed the animal even though its genes showed 65.2% wolf, 34.8% coyote.
But a July 12 report by Trent University’s Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre in Ontario, which has a long history of working on wolves, determined the animal to be 98% gray wolf. That test had been submitted by Butera and paid for by Protect the Adirondacks.
Wildlife advocates released the Trent results publicly. News that a wolf had been killed in New York became a national storyline. The Associated Press picked up the story in late August quoting the DEC saying: “the animal was most closely identified as an eastern coyote.”
Wolf advocates criticized the DEC’s lack of transparency for withholding its DNA report and put greater pressure on the state by turning to another lab with wolf expertise.
Butera and advocates provided samples to Bridgett vonHoldt, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
“If you have two analyses and they say the same thing, that it’s a wolf, how do you argue with that?”— Joe Butera, president of the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society
DEC also contacted vonHoldt for consultation after the conflicting results. She offered to share the results from the samples submitted by Butera, the agency later told the Explorer.
Wildlife advocates received their test results on Sept. 20 and released them the next day: 96.2% Great Lakes gray wolf, 1.6% gray wolf, 1.4% eastern wolf.
On Sept. 21, DEC told the Explorer the results confirmed the animal was a wolf based on “methodical, scientific assessment to ensure the accuracy of the species identification.”
Now that the species determination has been made, DEC is investigating whether the wolf was wild or captive. This fall the New York State Museum is analyzing tooth, bone, and hair samples to try to determine if the animal ate natural foods or commercial pet food.
Results from the tests are expected early next year.
But the hunter’s mind is already made up. He said it didn’t have a collar or microchip implanted in it for identification purposes.
“I believe 110 percent it’s a wild animal,” Brian said.
Either way, the DEC said the animal was the third wolf in the wild in New York since 2001. One was killed by a hunter in the town of Day in the southern Adirondacks in 2001. And a man shot a wolf attacking his dog in Sterling, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, in 2005. There has been debate over whether the 2005 wolf was domesticated.
DEC’s lab test criticized
Roland Kays, formerly the curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, said the initial analysis, from the DEC-commissioned report, was poor, lacking reference samples and details about them. He was perplexed at how the East Stroudsburg University lab named the animal a coyote, since the results showed it was mostly wolf.
“I don’t see how their conclusions are supported by their data,” said Kays, now a professor at the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University and a scientist at the Museum of Natural Science.
He said normal looking eastern coyotes in New York have about 5% to 10% wolf in them. That makeup is a result of when coyotes hybridized with wolves in the Great Lakes region before moving into New York about 100 years ago after the state’s wolves disappeared.
Kays said the Princeton and Trent University labs “are well known in the canid world.”
“That also means they have a lot of reference samples from past work that they can compare with,” Kays said. “They also explain what they did in much more detail.”
Kays was part of a study that did an analysis of bone and hair samples to determine if the diets of eight northeastern wolves were wild or domestic. The study, published in Northeastern Naturalist in 2011, found that three wild wolves had been living in New York and Vermont in the past decade and had likely dispersed to the area.
Wolf protection sought
The new discovery of a wolf in Central New York, about 25 miles from the Adirondacks, galvanized wolf advocates. They believe Northeast states and the federal government should be doing more to prepare New York and the Adirondacks for the wolves’ return.
“This is huge because the federal government wants out of the wolf business, period,” Glowa said. “They do not want wolves here in the Northeast. This is a big deal for them. Very big deal. When we’re finding dead wolves, we are rocking the boat big time.”
Glowa said the wolf from Cherry Valley near Cooperstown in Otsego County is one of at least 10 wolves that have been killed south of the St. Lawrence River since 1993. That tally doesn’t include his discovery in Maine in 2020. That year, a genetic analysis on an animal’s scat collected by the Maine Wolf Coalition found it came from a canid that was 85 percent wolf.
In September, Glowa and 37 others from state and national organizations wrote to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, urging New York “to increase protections for wolves potentially dispersing through and recolonizing the Northeast, including the state of New York.”
“A future in which recolonizing wolves in our region are able to successfully establish packs and an eventual population is only possible with an active and immediate response by DEC,” the group wrote.
Wolves are listed as a state and federally endangered species, but the federal status has changed back and forth in recent years.
Gray wolves in the lower 48 states—except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico—were stripped of their federal protection by a ruling in November 2020 that went into effect in January 2021. But environmental organizations, including Earth Justice, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued. About a year later, a federal judge ruled in their favor, restoring protections from hunting and trapping except in the northern Rocky Mountain populations, which were delisted in 2011 and 2017.
In New York, the DEC also proposed removing protections for the gray wolf in recent years. But state law requires protections to follow federal endangered species classifications.
A missing apex predator
Adirondack Council Rewilding Advocate John Davis said the Ostego County canid is “a reminder that the state should not remove the wolf from the state endangered species list.”
“Apex predator populations are crucial to healthy ecosystems,” the wildlife advocates wrote to the DEC. “The absence of highly interactive species that are key to maintaining habitat and other natural functions, such as wolves and cougars, has left a functional void in our ecosystems that has degraded overall environmental quality.”
Wolves play an important role in the health of prey species, by culling weakened and diseased animals, said Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Wolf packs also keep deer and moose on the move, preventing them from heavy browsing on vegetation, benefiting plant communities and birds that use the habitat for nesting and roosting.
A 2017 study by Princeton and Trent University researchers on the predation and ecological roles of wolves and coyotes in eastern North America found that “eastern coyotes have not completely replaced the ecological role of wolves because they are unlikely to prey as effectively or consistently” on deer and moose.
“The ascension of eastern coyotes to apex predator on contemporary landscapes, and their superficial similarities to wolves, should not detract from efforts to facilitate the restoration of wolves in eastern North America,” the researchers said.
The DEC said adult coyotes weigh 35 to 45 pounds. Big coyotes may exceed 50 to 60 pounds, according to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Wolves range from 40 to 175 pounds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wolves live in packs, although some research shows eastern coyotes also sometimes hunt in packs due to their wolf genes.
National recovery program demanded
The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that works to protect rare species, in August notified the federal government it intends to sue if the government doesn’t address several Endangered Species Act violations within 60 days.
“They have failed to develop the national wolf recovery plan, even though the gray wolf was listed nationally across the lower 48 back in 1974,” Weiss said.
She noted the wildlife service developed recovery plans only for the Northern Rockies, the Southwest and the western Great Lakes states.
Such plans are needed for other regions with suitable wolf habitat, Weiss said, including the Adirondacks and other parts of the Northeast.
The DEC’s species assessment identifies 6,000 square miles of habitat for the gray wolf in the Adirondack Park.
A recovery plan could be focused on reintroduction or a plan that focuses on studying whether dispersing wolves are traveling from existing populations here, Weiss said. It could result in land protection for wildlife corridors.
The closest known gray wolf population to the Adirondacks in the U.S. is in Michigan, where there were known to be 695 wolves in its Upper Peninsula in 2020, according to the Wolf Conservation Center. When that number is added to populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park, Mich., the total is 4,545 in the western Great Lakes.
The Michigan Wolf Management plan states that wolves are capable of dispersing 500 miles or more. It noted one wolf traveled at least 2,000 miles from Michigan to Manitoba, Canada, after it was accidentally captured by a trapper and released.
Canadian wolves are closer to New York. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says a population of about 200 adult eastern wolves—which are smaller than gray wolves—lives in Algonquin Provincial Park, about 120 miles from the New York border. The overall eastern wolf population in Ontario is 300 to 500 adults. The province also has 8,000 Great Lakes gray wolves, which can be found as far south as Algonquin Provincial Park.
Eastern wolves also live in the Papineau-LaBelle reserve in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, just 60 miles from New York.
“That 60 miles could be covered by a wolf in a day. For the state of New York and the other states in the Northeast to say there are no wolves, frankly, is laughable and not supported at all by the facts.”— John Glowa, Maine Wolf Coalition
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said there are a few documented cases of wolves crossing the St. Lawrence River. The ministry added that none of the more than 500 wolves collared with radios and monitored in and around Algonquin Provincial Park the past 20 years crossed the St. Lawrence. “The southern edge of the Canadian Shield seems to represent a hard barrier,” it said.
Advocates maintain that a few wolves likely get to the U.S. through Ontario and Quebec, but most are killed in Canada by hunters and trappers.
DEC asserts that a “natural colonization of wolves is unlikely.” Dan Rosenblatt, who heads the DEC’s wildlife diversity unit, said he’d expect to see more reports of wolves from people or trail camera photos if they were living or passing through New York.
“We’re probably not really primed for a restoration until we start seeing female wolves starting to make their way into the state,” Rosenblatt said.
Coyote hunting scrutinized
Retired Saranac Lake biology and ecology teacher Tom Kalinowski said he heard what sounded like a wolf in the McKenzie Pond area of the village about 7 p.m. one November night several years ago.
“This really deep low-pitched howl,” he said. “If there are wolves in the area, you are going to hear them long before you ever see them.”
That’s because coyotes and wolves are difficult to distinguish visually, said Kalinowski, who is not part of the advocacy efforts.
Physical similarities are a big reason advocates are pushing the state to educate hunters and restrict coyote hunting. They point to the hunting ban in and around provincial parks as precedent, and say that it would be a key component of a New York recovery.
“Body size and genetics are often the only way to tell one canis type apart from another,” the advocates wrote in their letter to the DEC. “It is possible that small to medium sized wolves (e.g., 60-65 pounds) are killed and assumed to be large ‘coyotes’.”
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The letter urges the state to do more genetic tests statewide to determine the presence of wolves.
But Charles Parker, president of the New York Conservation Council, said the predators should be allowed to come back on their own: “I don’t think we need to go through any prohibition or changes in hunting regulations at this time.”
The New York coyote hunt, Oct. 1 to March 26, runs 24 hours per day with no kill limit or reporting requirements. In 2021, hunters killed 16,000 coyotes, DEC estimates.
In September, the DEC updated its hunting and trapping web pages to include information about identifying wolves or wolf hybrids, which are illegal to kill in New York.
“We have documented a few wolves and wolf hybrids over the last 20 years in New York,” the site notes. “In most cases, we believe these animals were released from captivity. However, wild wolves are present in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and it is possible for these animals to travel into New York.”
Hunters are encouraged to report any canid more than 4.5-feet in length or 50 pounds to the DEC.
As for the wolf killed in Central New York, DEC said in August they didn’t anticipate any charges against the hunter.
But Brian said the DEC took the animal’s body because endangered species are illegal to possess. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the wolf was not listed as a federally protected species in December.
Butera and Weiss said they don’t believe the hunter should be charged in this case, noting that he didn’t know the animal was a wolf and his cooperation helped prove it was one.
Brian himself believes that wolves should be protected and allowed to return to New York, perhaps becoming eligible one day for legal hunting.
“I think it could be a good situation for everybody,” he said.
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